Tyrian purple (Greek, πορφύρα, porphyra, Latin: purpura), also
known as Tyrian red, Phoenician purple, royal purple, imperial purple
or imperial dye, is a reddish-purple natural dye. It is a secretion
produced by several species of predatory sea snails in the family
Muricidae, rock snails originally known by the name Murex. In ancient
times, extracting this dye involved tens of thousands of snails and
substantial labor, and as a result, the dye was highly valued. The
main chemical is 6,6′-dibromoindigo.
2 Production from sea snails
3 Royal blue
5 Murex purple production in North Africa
7 Modern hue rendering
10 See also
12 External links
Tyrian purple may first have been used by the ancient Phoenicians as
early as 1570 BC. The dye was greatly prized in antiquity because
the colour did not easily fade, but instead became brighter with
weathering and sunlight. Its significance is such that the name
Phoenicia means 'land of purple.' It came in various shades, the
most prized being that of "blackish clotted blood".
Tyrian purple was expensive: the 4th-century-BC historian Theopompus
Purple for dyes fetched its weight in silver at Colophon"
in Asia Minor. The expense meant that purple-dyed textiles became
status symbols, and early sumptuary laws restricted their use. The
Tyrian purple was tightly controlled in Byzantium and
was subsidized by the imperial court, which restricted its use for the
colouring of imperial silks. Later (9th century) a child born to
a reigning emperor was said to be porphyrogenitos, "born in the
Some[who?] speculate that the dye extracted from the Bolinus brandaris
is known as argaman (ארגמן) in Biblical Hebrew. Another dye
extracted from a related sea snail, Hexaplex trunculus, produced a
blue colour which could be the one known as tekhelet
(תְּכֵלֶת), used in garments worn for ritual purposes.
Production from sea snails
The dye substance is a mucous secretion from the hypobranchial gland
of one of several species of medium-sized predatory sea snails that
are found in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. These are the marine
Bolinus brandaris the spiny dyemurex, (originally known as
Murex brandaris Linnaeus, 1758), the banded dye-murex Hexaplex
trunculus, the rock-shell Stramonita haemastoma, and less
commonly a number of other species such as Bolinus cornutus. The dye
is an organic compound of bromine (i.e., an organobromine compound), a
class of compounds often found in algae and in some other sea life,
but much more rarely found in the biology of land animals.
In nature the snails use the secretion as part of their predatory
behaviour in order to sedate prey and as an antimicrobial lining on
egg masses. The snail also secretes this substance when it is
attacked by predators, or physically antagonized by humans (e.g.,
poked). Therefore, the dye can be collected either by "milking" the
snails, which is more labour-intensive but is a renewable resource, or
by collecting and destructively crushing the snails. David Jacoby
remarks that "twelve thousand snails of
Murex brandaris yield no more
than 1.4 g of pure dye, enough to colour only the trim of a single
Many other species worldwide within the family Muricidae, for example
Plicopurpura pansa, from the tropical eastern Pacific, and
Plicopurpura patula from the Caribbean zone of the western
Atlantic, can also produce a similar substance (which turns into an
enduring purple dye when exposed to sunlight) and this ability has
sometimes also been historically exploited by local inhabitants in the
areas where these snails occur (Some other predatory gastropods, such
as some wentletraps in the family Epitoniidae, seem to also produce a
similar substance, although this has not been studied or exploited
commercially). The dog whelk Nucella lapillus, from the North
Atlantic, can also be used to produce red-purple and violet dyes.
The Phoenicians also made an indigo dye, sometimes referred to as
royal blue or hyacinth purple, which was made from a closely related
species of marine snail.
The Phoenicians established an ancillary production facility on the
Iles Purpuraires at Mogador, in Morocco. The sea snail harvested
at this western Moroccan dye production facility was Hexaplex
trunculus (mentioned above) also known by the older name Murex
This second species of dye murex is found today on the Mediterranean
Atlantic coasts of Europe and Africa (Spain and Portugal, Morocco,
and the Canary Islands).
Justinian I clad in Tyrian purple, 6th-century
mosaic at Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
The colour-fast (non-fading) dye was an item of luxury trade, prized
by Romans, who used it to colour ceremonial robes. Used as a dye, the
colour shifts from blue (peak absorption at 590 nm, which is
yellow-orange) to reddish-purple (peak absorption at 520 nm,
which is green). It is believed that the intensity of the purple
hue improved rather than faded as the dyed cloth aged. Vitruvius
mentions the production of
Tyrian purple from shellfish. In his
History of Animals,
Aristotle described the shellfish from which
Tyrian purple was obtained and the process of extracting the tissue
that produced the dye.
Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder described the production of
Tyrian purple in his Natural History:
The most favourable season for taking these [shellfish] is after the
rising of the Dog-star, or else before spring; for when they have once
discharged their waxy secretion, their juices have no consistency:
this, however, is a fact unknown in the dyers' workshops, although it
is a point of primary importance. After it is taken, the vein [i.e.
hypobranchial gland] is extracted, which we have previously spoken of,
to which it is requisite to add salt, a sextarius [about 20 fl. oz.]
about to every hundred pounds of juice. It is sufficient to leave them
to steep for a period of three days, and no more, for the fresher they
are, the greater virtue there is in the liquor. It is then set to boil
in vessels of tin [or lead], and every hundred amphoræ ought to be
boiled down to five hundred pounds of dye, by the application of a
moderate heat; for which purpose the vessel is placed at the end of a
long funnel, which communicates with the furnace; while thus boiling,
the liquor is skimmed from time to time, and with it the flesh, which
necessarily adheres to the veins. About the tenth day, generally, the
whole contents of the cauldron are in a liquefied state, upon which a
fleece, from which the grease has been cleansed, is plunged into it by
way of making trial; but until such time as the colour is found to
satisfy the wishes of those preparing it, the liquor is still kept on
the boil. The tint that inclines to red is looked upon as inferior to
that which is of a blackish hue. The wool is left to lie in soak for
five hours, and then, after carding it, it is thrown in again, until
it has fully imbibed the colour.
Archaeological data from Tyre indicate that the snails were collected
in large vats and left to decompose. This produced a hideous stench
that was actually mentioned by ancient authors. Not much is known
about the subsequent steps, and the actual ancient method for
mass-producing the two murex dyes has not yet been successfully
reconstructed; this special "blackish clotted blood" colour, which was
prized above all others, is believed to be achieved by double-dipping
the cloth, once in the indigo dye of H. trunculus and once in the
purple-red dye of B. brandaris.
The Roman mythographer Julius Pollux, writing in the 2nd century AD,
asserted (Onomasticon I, 45–49) that the purple dye was first
discovered by Heracles, or rather, by his dog, whose mouth was stained
purple from chewing on snails along the coast of the Levant. Recently,
the archaeological discovery of substantial numbers of Murex shells on
Crete suggests that the
Minoans may have pioneered the extraction of
Imperial purple centuries before the Tyrians. Dating from collocated
pottery suggests the dye may have been produced during the Middle
Minoan period in the 20th–18th century BC. Accumulations of
crushed murex shells from a hut at the site of
Coppa Nevigata in
Italy may indicate production of purple dye there from at
least the 18th century BC.
The production of Murex purple for the Byzantine court came to an
abrupt end with the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the critical
episode of the Fourth Crusade. David Jacoby concludes that "no
Byzantine emperor nor any Latin ruler in former Byzantine territories
could muster the financial resources required for the pursuit of murex
purple production. On the other hand, murex fishing and dyeing with
genuine purple are attested for Egypt in the tenth to 13th
centuries." By contrast, Jacoby finds that there are no mentions
of purple fishing or dyeing, nor trade in the colorant in any Western
source, even in the Frankish Levant. The European West turned instead
to vermilion provided by the insect Kermes vermilio, known as grana,
In 1909, Harvard anthropologist
Zelia Nuttall compiled an intensive
comparative study on the historical production of the purple dye
produced from the carnivorous murex snail, source of the royal purple
dye valued higher than gold in the ancient Near East and ancient
Mexico. Not only did the people of ancient Mexico use the same methods
of production as the Phoenicians, they also valued murex-dyed cloth
above all others, as it appeared in codices as the attire of nobility.
"Nuttall noted that the Mexican murex-dyed cloth bore a "disagreeable
… strong fishy smell, which appears to be as lasting as the color
itself." Likewise, the ancient Egyptian Papyrus of Anastasi
laments: "The hands of the dyer reek like rotting fish … " So
pervasive was this stench that the
Talmud specifically granted women
the right to divorce any husband who became a dyer after marrying.
Murex purple production in North Africa
Murex purple was a very important industry in many Phoenician colonies
and Carthage was no exception. Traces of this once very lucrative
industry are still visible in many Punic sites such as Kerkouane,
Djerba and even in Carthage itself. According to Pliny,
Meninx (today's Djerba) produced the best purple in Africa which was
also ranked second only after Tyre's.
It was found also at Essaouira (Morocco).
The chemical structure of 6,6′-dibromoindigo, the main component of
A space-filling model of 6,6′-dibromoindigo, based on the crystal
The main chemical constituent of the Tyrian dye was discovered by Paul
Friedländer in 1909 to be 6,6′-dibromoindigo, derivative of indigo
dye that had previously been synthesized in 1903. However, it
has never been synthesized commercially.
In 1998, through a lengthy trial and error process, an English
engineer named John Edmonds rediscovered a process for dyeing with
Tyrian purple. He researched recipes and observations of dyers
from the 15th century to the 18th century. He explored the
biotechnology process behind woad fermentation. After collaborating
with a chemist, Edmonds hypothesized that an alkaline fermenting vat
was necessary. He studied an incomplete ancient recipe for Tyrian
purple recorded by Pliny the Elder. By altering the percentage of sea
salt in the dye vat and adding potash, he was able to successfully dye
wool a deep purple colour.
Recent research in organic electronics has shown that
Tyrian purple is
an ambipolar organic semiconductor. Transistors and circuits based on
this material can be produced from sublimed thin-films of the dye. The
good semiconducting properties of the dye originate from strong
intermolecular hydrogen bonding that reinforces pi stacking necessary
Modern hue rendering
True Tyrian purple, like most high-chroma pigments, cannot be
accurately displayed on a computer display. Ancient reports are also
not entirely consistent, but these swatches give an indication of the
likely range in which it appeared:
The lower one is the sRGB colour #990024, intended for viewing on an
output device with a gamma of 2.2. It is a representation of RHS
colour code 66A, which has been equated to "Tyrian red", a
term which is often used as a synonym for Tyrian purple.
The colour name "Tyrian plum" is popularly given to a British postage
stamp that was prepared, but never released to the public, shortly
before the death of King Edward VII in 1910.
Cuneiform tablet, dated 600-500 BC, with instructions for dyeing wool
purple and blue. Ref.BM62788 .
Painting of a man wearing an all-purple toga picta, from an Etruscan
tomb (about 350 BC).
Roman men wearing togae praetextae with reddish-purple stripes during
a religious procession (1st century BC).
The Empress Theodora, the wife of the Emperor Justinian, dressed in
Tyrian purple. (6th century).
A medieval depiction of the coronation of the Emperor
800. The bishops and cardinals wear Tyrian purple, and the Pope wears
A fragment of the shroud in which the Emperor
Charlemagne was buried
in 814. It was made of gold and
Tyrian purple from Constantinople.
Heracles and the Discovery of the Secret of
Purple by Peter Paul
Rubens (1636), Musée Bonnat
6,6'-dibromoindigo, the major component of Tyrian purple
^ web.Forret.com Color Conversion Tool set to colour #66023C (Tyrian
^ McGovern, P. E. and Michel, R. H.; Royal
Purple dye: tracing the
chemical origins of the industry, Anal. Chem. 1985, 57, 1514A-1522A
^ Cunliffe, Barry. Europe Between the Oceans; 9000 BC-AD 1000. (New
Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 241.
^ "Phoenician". Online Etymology Dictionary.
^ a b "Pigments Causes of Color". www.webexhibits.org. Retrieved
^ Theopompus, cited by
Athenaeus (12:526) around 200 BC; according to
Gulick, Charles Barton 1941. Athenaeus, The Deipnosophists. Cambridge:
Harvard University Press.
^ David Jacoby, "Silk in Western Byzantium before the Fourth Crusade"
in Trade, Commodities, and Shipping in the Medieval Mediterranean
(1997) pp. 455f and notes 17–19.
^ Porphyrogennetos" in The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford
University Press, New York & Oxford, 1991, p. 1701.
^ O. Elsner, "Solution of the enigmas of dyeing with
Tyrian purple and
the Biblical tekhelet", Dyes in history and Archaeology 10 (1992) p
^ Ziderman, I.I., 1986.
Purple dye made from shellfish in antiquity.
Review of Progress in Coloration, 16: 46–52.
^ a b Radwin, G. E. and A. D'Attilio, 1986. Murex shells of the world.
An illustrated guide to the Muricidae, p93, Stanford University Press,
Stanford, California, USA, 284pp incl 192 figs. & 32 pls.
^ Benkendorff, Kirsten (March 1999). "Bioactive molluscan resources
and their conservation: Biological and chemical studies on the egg
masses of marine molluscs". University of Wollongong. Archived from
the original (PDF) on 2007-08-30. Retrieved 2008-02-25.
^ Because of research by Benkendorff et al., the Tyrian purple
precursor tyrindoleninone is being investigated as a potential
antimicrobial agent with uses against multidrug resistant bacteria.
^ Jacoby, "Silk Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction:
Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West" Dumbarton Oaks
Papers 58 (2004:197–240) p. 210.
^ Gould, 1853[full citation needed]
^ Linnaeus, 1758a[full citation needed]
^ Whelks and purple dye in Anglo-Saxon England. Carole P. Biggam.
Department of English Language, University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK
THE ARCHAEO+MALACOLOGY GROUP NEWSLETTER. Issue Number 9, March 2006.
^ a b Moorey, Peter (1999). Ancient Mesopotamian Materials and
Industries: The Archaeological Evidence. Winona Lake, Indiana:
Eisenbrauns. p. 138. ISBN 1-57506-042-6.
^ C.Michael Hogan, Mogador: Promontory Fort, The Megalithic Portal,
ed. Andy Burnham, November 2, 2007 
^ Linnaeus, 1758b[full citation needed]
^ Christopher J. Cooksey, “Tyrian Purple: 6,6’-Dibromoindigo and
Related Compounds,” Molecules, 2001, 6: 736–769.
^ Vitruvius, De Architectura, Book VII, Chapter 13.
History of Animals (Whitefish, Montana, U.S.: Kessering
Publishing, 2004), Book V, see especially pages 131–132.
^ Pliny the Elder, The Natural History, eds. John Bostock, Henry
Thomas Riley (London, England: Taylor and Francis, 1855), Book IX. The
History of Fishes. Chapter 62. Pliny discusses Tyrian purple
in Chapters 60–65 of his Natural History.
^ The problem with
Tyrian purple is that the precursor reacts very
quickly with air and light to form an insoluble dye. (Hence Pliny
says: "...when [the shellfish] have once discharged their waxy
secretion, their juices have no consistency....") The cumbersome
process that Pliny describes is necessary to reverse the oxidation and
to restore the water-soluble precursor so that large masses of wool
can be dyed. See: Carole P. Biggam (2006) "Knowledge of whelk dyes and
pigments in Anglo-Saxon England," Anglo-Saxon England, 35 :
23–56; see especially pages 26–27. See also: C. J. Cooksey (2001)
"Tyrian purple: 6,6’-Dibromoindigo and Related Compounds,"
Molecules, 6 (9) : 736–769, especially page 761. Indigo, which
is chemically very similar to Tyrian purple, behaves similarly. See:
^ Reese, David S. (1987). "Palaikastro Shells and Bronze Age
Dye Production in the Mediterranean Basin," Annual of the
British School of Archaeology at Athens, 82, 201–6); Stieglitz,
Robert R. (1994), "The Minoan Origin of Tyrian Purple," Biblical
Archaeologist, 57, 46–54.
^ Cazzella, Alberto & Maurizio Moscoloni. 1998. "Coppa Nevigata:
un insediamento fortificato dell'eta del Bronzo," in Luciana Drago
Troccoli (ed.), Scavi e ricerche archeologiche dell'Università di
Roma La Sapienza, pp. 178–179.
^ Jacoby 2004, p. 210.
^ Nutall, Zelia (1909). "A Curious Survival in Mexico of the Use of
the Purpura Shell-fish for Dyeing". In Boas, F. Anthropological Essays
Presented to Fredrick Ward Putnam in Honor of his Seventieth Birthday,
by his Friends and Associates. New York, New York: G. E. Strechert
& Co. pp. 368–384. See p. 370.
^ Robinson, Stuart (1969). A
History of Dyed Textiles. London: Sudio
Vista. p. 24.
^ Compton, Stephen (2010). Exodus Lost (first ed.). Booksurge
Publishing. pp. 29–33. ISBN 9781439276839.
^ Friedlaender, P. (1909). "Zur Kenntnis des Farbstoffes des antiken
Purpurs aus Murex brandaris" ([Contribution] to our knowledge of the
ancient purple dye from Murex brandaris). Monatshefte für Chemie …,
^ Sachs, Franz & Kempf, Richard (1903). "Über
p-Halogen-o-nitrobenzaldehyde". Berichte der Deutschen Chemischen
Gesellschaft. 36 (3): 3299–3303.
^ "Indigo". Encyclopædia Britannica. V (15th ed.). Chicago:
Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. 1981. p. 338.
^ Cooksey C. J. (2001). "Tyrian purple: 6,6'-Dibromoindigo and Related
Compounds" (PDF). Molecules. 6 (9): 736–769.
^ John Edmonds, Tyrian or Imperial Purple: The Mystery of Imperial
Purple Dyes, Historic
Dye Series, no. 7 (Little Chalfont,
Buckinghamshire, England: John Edwards, 2000).
^ Article about John Edmonds:
^ Chenciner, Robert. Madder red: a history of luxury and trade: plant
dyes and pigments in world commerce and art. Richmond: Curzon Press,
^ Ambipolar organic field effect transistors and inverters with the
natural material Tyrian Purple, E. D. Głowacki et al., AIP Advances
1, 042132 (2011)
^ "RHS, UCL and RGB Colors, gamma = 1.4, fan 2", Azalea Society of
America website  (this gives the RGB value #b80049, which has been
converted to #990024 for the sRGB gamma of 2.2)
^ Buck, G. Buck Rose Website, Page 5
Purple - Ancient
Bibliography from Chris J. Cooksey (1994) "Making Tyrian purple," Dyes
History and Archaeology, vol. 13, pages 7–13.
The Free Library: article on Tyrian purple
Purple of Tyre
Shades of red
A typical sample is shown for each name; a range of color-variations
is commonly associated with each color-name.
Shades of violet
A typical sample is shown for each name; a range of color-variations
is commonly associated with each color-name.
Reactive dye printing
Types of dyes
Traditional textile dyes
Use of saffron
In Scottish Highlands
Glossary of dyeing terms